To arm or not to arm…

Just how rare is Ireland in having an unarmed police force? Kamila Lewandowska takes a quick jaunt around the globe

The concept of unarmed police may be surprising, not to say shocking, for many people living outside Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Great Britain and New Zealand. Those five nations incorporated the model of policing where frontline officers don’t carry a weapon. Most people associate police with guns, but the examples below prove police don’t have to be armed to perform their daily duties.

Upon the creation of An Garda Síochána in 1924, it was decided the Force would be predominantly unarmed. To this day most rank and file Gardaí are still unarmed and do not have access to firearms. Indeed, most Gardaí do not undergo firearm training; unlike in the other four countries. Only detectives and specialist units are armed. However, the issue of arming a larger number of officers is regularly in the media – especially with Ireland now having one of the highest ratios of gun-related crimes in the EU.

In most of those countries, gun control laws are strict, with the possession of firearms highly controlled. The exceptions are Norway and Iceland. In fact, Iceland has secured 15th place worldwide when it comes to possessing firearms per capita. One-third of citizens are armed- primarily rifles and hunting guns – yet Icelandic police are not for most of the time. Most patrol cars are equipped with guns, but walking patrols carry out their duties supported only with batons, handcuffs and pepper sprays. All members of the Icelandic police force are trained to handle a firearm, but only members of the special forces group- Víkingasveitin perform their tasks armed. Despite that, crime statistics are extremely low, violent crime is virtually non-existent, and the country is being repeatedly listed among one of the safest in the world.

In Norway, all police members are trained to use a gun but do not carry one when performing their patrolling duties. Guns are unloaded and sealed in the car and authorisation from their supervisor is required to use it. The police training takes three years during which officers learn how to approach offenders, protect people and de-escalate situations before they would reach for the firearm.

Despite the horrendous crime committed by Andres Breivik in 2011, which left 77 people dead and exposed the danger of unarmed police, Norway’s stance with regards to carrying guns by police remains unchanged. In 2014 as a response to terrorist threats across Europe officers were temporarily armed but once the risk has subsided, police returned to having their guns locked in the vehicles.
The British police force was formed on the principle of ‘public consent’ where officers are acting as ‘citizens in uniforms’. Despite the high risks of terrorist attacks and increased assaults of police officers (a 27% increase from March 2018 – March 2019), the majority of officers do not want to be armed and prefer to rely on batons, canisters of mace and handcuffs to do their job.

It is believed that arming police would create distance between them and the general public, by making officers less approachable. It is believed that intelligence-gathering and stronger links with the community are better methods to combat crime in the long term. Another reason behind opposition to arming patrol units is lengthy investigations that follow every incident involving a gun. The law in this respect is intended to make sure justified use of a gun; however, officers may feel like criminals rather than law enforcement carrying out their duties.
As a former British colony, the police force in New Zealand was founded on similar grounds to Great Britain; deriving its legitimacy from public consent. Officers perform tasks with the help of batons, pepper spray and tasers. Every member of the police is trained to handle a gun, but only certain police officers, criminal investigation units, Diplomatic Protection Squads and airport security are authorised to carry firearms routinely.

Each of those five countries employs different tactics and methods to maintain law and order, but the concept behind policing is similar. The police are there to serve the public rather than the state. The common belief seems to be that arming police could spark unnecessary violence from criminals and crime statistics seem to back up the gun-free policy. The number of police-related fatal shootings is lower in countries where law enforcement officers don’t carry firearms. Yet having an unarmed police force is only one factor. Others include the culture around guns, relevant training and the relationship between police and the community, where the emphasis is put on mutual trust and respect rather than gun-forced obedience.

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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